Friday, October 29, 2010

The old horror movies


For fun, and because I'm fascinated by the twin holidays of All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, I'm re-posting here an essay I wrote for CT on horror movies. If after reading the essay, you'd like to recommend movies that capture the horror genre well, please do so. I'll mention a few later in the day, after I've had a chance to put time into the books, but three that come to mind right now are THE OTHERS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and CORALINE.

Lastly, I do say prayers here and there for a small band of filmmakers to take on the horror genre. I pray for highly skilled filmmakers, well-read in both the literary and artistic history of horror, theologically savvy (i.e. familiar with and informed by the rich theological repository of writing about creation, theodicy, moral anthropology, soteriology, etc), smart enough to hire top-notch screenwriters if they themselves are not excellent writers, and finally financially resourced. That's what I pray for, among other things.

THE HORRORS
I believe in demons.

Fra Angelico, "All Saints Day"
I believe in angels. I believe in witchdoctors, voices and the Canaanite god Moloch. I believe in the Scientific Method. I believe in Satan. I believe in total depravity. I believe in common sense and the power of prayer. I believe this because I am a Christian. I believe this because as a child raised in the shadows of volcanoes tilting over Guatemala City, in a culture that syncretized Catholic saints to the Mayan gods, I had no reason to believe otherwise.

I believe in "supernatural" horror as much as I believe in the reliability of my Merrell shoes.

But what I believe is not the same thing as what I like or do not like.

RVD: "The sweet baby satan"
What I do not like is watching horror films at night—or the day—or pretty much at any other time. Not Se7en. Not The Ring. Not Poltergeist. I just can't. I tried watching Halloween in high school and I almost died of fright. I couldn't handle the images; I took them too literally. How could I not? People I knew as a child had been harassed by, well, honest-to-God demons. Of two things I was certain in my youth: that I did not like horror movies and that Christians did not watch horror movies, not for stylistic reasons but for the theological conviction that we should not. It was verboten.

Migrating to the suburbs of Chicago as a thirteen-year old, I discovered a culture of teenagers who watched and loved horror movies. I couldn't understand. What was the fascination? What need did these movies satisfy? A good laugh? A good scare? Did they not know that these scary things really did exist on the other side of the veil along with Wormwood and Lucifer?

(For the rest of the essay, see here. See here for Scott Derrickson's thoughts on horror movies.)
Pieter Bruegel, "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent" (1559)

6 comments:

Laurel said...

That was a VERY interesting article, very thought-provoking. Personally, I do not care for horror movies - but that's because I've got a very acute visual memory, and find that I cannot easily let go of disturbing imagery. (Or, in a nutshell, "What has been seen cannot be unseen.") (I still have quite clear images stuck in my mind from seeing 'The Manitou' back in junior high at a friend's house.) Still, I don't think of the horror genre as evil in and of itself, just as I do not think of a particular style of art or literature as evil. It's a framework to share ideas, a form of communication; it's what you make of it. It can be used for good or ill. I appreciate the strong good/evil dichotomy in many horror movies I've read about and the very few I've seen, but I still can't bear to watch them myself (or to read horror novels, for that matter). My husband, however, has no trouble reading Dean Koontz.

I'm glad to read such an insightful, interesting discussion of the idea of Christians and horror movies. I especially appreciate the reference to ancient and medieval art and literature dealing with horror. Many cathedrals and other great works of art contain imagery of hell that is just as demented and disturbing as any more recent visual depiction of evil and chaos. Dante's Inferno is equally laden with horror imagery. More power to Christians who can use horror movies (and literature and art) for good and for God's purposes.

w. david o. taylor said...

Well said, Laurel, well said indeed.

Greg said...

My struggle is when I get the distinct impression that a director, or writer, or cinematographer is taking particular delight in the torture, exploitation, or destruction of the human body. When it's really bad, I start to feel more than a little sick. But, when I get the feeling that the director is as heartbroken as I, then he/she has earned a sympathetic audience in me. Indeed the existence of evil and terror is part of the narrative we all live in, and it's difficult to depict evil without... well... depicting evil.

w. david o. taylor said...

Greg, you're right on there. It's such a fine line between "exposing" evil through innately artistic means and glorying in that evil. I don't imagine it's easy to do. I also guess it's difficult for artists who make horror films or write horror novels to know that they cannot control how their audiences will receive the work.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

so, so helpful, David (and Greg and Laurel!) Thank you, again, for helping me to grow in my ability to discern. Especially as I scramble every day to help my children to do the same!

w. david o. taylor said...

Thanks, Tamara. Grace to you and your kids.